How to Play a Resonator Guitar

Best Selling Resonator Guitar

The most excellent instruments ever made are resonators: shiny metal acoustic guitars that look as loud as they sound or wooden bodies with metal cones in the middle. They resemble vintage sci-fi, and in the hands of Son House, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Tampa Red, Taj Mahal, Bruce Cockburn, Keith Richards, or Duane Allman, they explode like a space rocket.

Resonators were initially used to pump up the volume on acoustic guitars in the 1920s, but they can now be found giving blues a deep twang, making an old country song moan, or adding a little sizzle to rock.

There are two main types of resonators: square-neck and round-neck. National-style resos are either tri-cone (three small cones with a T-shaped bridge) or single cones (one big cone); Dobro-style resos are a single inverted cone with a spider bridge. In reality, cones and bridges are often mixed and matched on individual resonator guitars.

How a resonator produces the sound is different from that of an acoustic guitar. Unlike an acoustic guitar where touches amplify the strings’ vibrations with the wooden soundboard or top, resonators use metal coils that are in contact with the underside of the bridge to amplify the strings’ vibrations.

Resonator guitars are also much louder than acoustic ones, even though they produce a distinctively different sound. Since they were initially designed to be played in larger venues or with louder bands, they were initially a solution to playing the guitar in larger venues or before the electric guitar became popular.

Over the years, they have developed their distinctive playing styles for different genres and have become an integrated part of various styles of music.  It can sometimes be challenging to determine which resonator guitar is best for you as there are so many variations to choose from. We’ll examine a few of the different varieties and see what they’re used for.

There are two neck styles in play, the round neck and the square neck. It is possible to play a square neck, but it will not be comfortable to play. The “playability” of a round neck guitar is very similar to that of an ordinary acoustic guitar.

The “action”, or the height of the strings above the frets, will be the most problematic. During playing, guitars made for playing slides will have their action set high, so the slide or tone bar doesn’t strike or click against the fret wire. If the action could be lowered, it would be more comfortable and easier to play.

The player’s issue will become more sinister when they want to tone down the action even further. Generally, resonators aren’t constructed to be played “normally”. This is why the neck relief may not be as good as it should be. As the frets are only meant to serve as visual references, any bow in the neck is usually tolerable since the frets aren’t supposed to be that close to the strings. However, when tuning and adjusting the action, you may discover that your neck bow is buzzing to the point where you are no longer comfortable playing. Unfortunately, there is no guarantee that the truss rods can be adjusted to correct this problem.

Additionally, the sound/tone will be noticeably different due to the natural tone of a resonator. If you can live with the potential complications, then converting an acoustic resonator to a standard acoustic instrument might add the flavour you’ve been looking for.

Neck Shape- Round or Square?

Many guitarists who are used to playing conventional guitars will find it easier to pick up a resonator guitar with a rounded neck. Similarly to regular acoustic guitars, these necks come in D, C, and even a soft V shape, making them very comfortable in the same way as any other guitar. As a result, they are generally played with the fretboard facing away from the player like a standard guitar or frequently seated in a Spanish position. Because of this similarity to how other guitars are played, resonator acoustic guitars with a round neck are often tuned to standard tuning like other guitars. However, due to their popularity in various forms of blues music, they are also played using an open tuning and bottleneck slide. A good example of an open tuning would be tuned to a G chord, in which every string is tuned to a note in the chord. Starting from the low to the high, this would be:

D | G | D | G | B | D

However, in styles such as country and bluegrass, square-necked resonators are much more common and are usually played with lap steels.  The pedal steel guitar is not to be confused with a pedal steel guitar, which is built on a stand with pedals and knee levers and has more strings. The square necks of this type of resonator require that you play it in a seated position. It is commonly played with a slide rather than fretting notes.  In large part because of this, they are almost always tuned in open tunings, which lend themselves well to this playing. As a result of the extra wood in their square design, the necks of this type of resonator are much stronger than a conventional guitar neck and can withstand higher string tension. A player of square necked resonators can, therefore, tune individual strings up from standard tuning when tuning strings on other types of guitars. For example, in open G tuning, the strings could be tuned as follows:

G | B | D | G | B | D

The instrument will be played solely with a slide instead of fretting; the high string tension will not negatively impact the player’s ability to play notes on the higher tensioned strings.

Body Material – Metal or Wood?

Different guitars use different materials in the body of their resonators. Most of these guitars will use the same tonewoods as a standard guitar, but others may be made of thin sheets of metal that match or complement the resonator section of the body.  In most cases, metal-bodied models are made of steel or aluminium, but brass can also be used, and they can be painted, plated or left unpainted.   The wood bodies of acoustic instruments are also commonly lacquered, painted, and treated much like other types.  Generally, blues players don’t prefer either type of construction material, but bluegrass players are almost exclusively using bodied wooden instruments because they are considered more traditional.

Resonator – Which design?

There are several different designs from various manufacturers, but there are generally three main types of construction for most resonators. One type of resonator is the trigone, which has three coils of metal. Blues players often prefer these guitars, also known as the National design after the company that first manufactured resonator acoustic guitars in this style.  Another resonator type includes the Dobro style, which consists of a single inverted cone attached to a spider-like bracing that arises from the bridge.  The Dobro style of resonator guitar was named after the first company to manufacture guitars in this style. The term “Dobro” is also used as a standard reference to resonator guitars used in these genres of music.  It is also louder than a tritone design, so it is more prevalent among players who rely solely on acoustic amplification. Among the three main types of bridge, the biscuit bridge is the least popular, as it uses a resonator attached to the underside of the bridge with disc-shaped wooden support.

Although there are many standard practices for matching neck shape, body material, and resonator design, many different combinations can be found and used for various musical genres.  As these music genres progress and borrow from each other, it is increasingly common to see a blues guitarist playing lap steel style or vice versa, or vice versa. In addition to folk-inspired acts such as Mumford & Sons making their way into popular music, the trend to break these rules is sure to continue.  Therefore, we advise choosing resonators based on your music and how you want to play it and being open to trying something different.

Top 10 Best Resonator Guitar

1

Gold-Tone PBS-D Paul Guitar

Gold Tone Paul Beard Signature Series PBR Roundneck Resonator Guitar (Vintage Mahogany)
  • Maple Soundwell and Mahogany Back & Sides
  • USA-Made Beard Cone, Spun Aluminum, USA-Made Beard Spider
  • 25"-Scale Round Neck with Rosewood Fingerboard
  • Bone Nut, Maple Saddle with Ebony Top, Dobro-Style Tailpiece and Sealed Adjustable Tuners with Metal Buttons
  • Case Not Included

The respected Resonator guitars designed and manufactured by Paul Beard are well known worldwide.

A gold-tone resonator carrying his name generates a vibrant sound using an aluminium cone. Many of the woods you will see on conventional guitars are present on this guitar, such as curly maple on the back, sides, and top. Curly is simply a reference to the type of curly grain that is prevalent in the wood. It gives the wood an attractive kind of striped appearance.

The sunburst finish on the body makes it look impressive. The neck is made of maple, and the fretboard is made of ebony. There are flower and heart designs carved into the fretboard. The action is high, making it ideal for being played on the lap with a tone bar. The guitar is enhanced in its look with an attractive maple binding. The Soundwell is made of maple wood.

There are sealed tuners on top of the headstock with Pearloid buttons. The nut measures 2 inches and is made of bone.

There is no cutaway design and a scale of 25 inches. If you are playing conventionally, you will reveal 12 frets along the edge of the body. Playing seated with it on your lap, there will be 19 in total. It is no lightweight guitar and is designed to be played either standing or seated, although we think the latter will be most common.

The Resonator guitar has an impressive sound and is classically designed. However, it is not an inexpensive instrument. Handmade, it is made carefully and set up in the same way.

PROS:

  • Handmade from suitable materials.
  • It has a rich sound.

CONS:

  • It is quite an expensive instrument.

2

Gretsch G9210 Boxcar Square-Neck Resonator Guitar

Gretsch G9210 Square Neck Boxcar Mahogany Resonator Acoustic Guitar
  • Laminated mahogany body
  • 25" scale mahogany neck w/19 fret padauk fingerboard
  • Spider-Ebony-Tipped Maple bridge
  • Grover Sta-Tite Die-Cast
  • Case not Included

Gretsch knows a thing or two about guitar making. Over the years, they have produced some classic models. Their past clients included some famous people. Chet Atkins, of course, as well as Eddie Cochran and Bo Diddley. In later years, they were used by George Harrison, Brian Jones, Joe Walsh, and even Pete Townshend put his seal of approval on an orange 6120 when he smashed it up.

Most surprising may be the use of a red 1957 Gretsch Corvette for slide playing by Rory Gallagher. Gretsch knows a thing or two, so when they make a Resonator, it will have that Gretsch’ something’. So the best square neck resonator guitar might be here if you are looking for a guitar that bears the Best Square Neck Resonator Guitar label.

Mahogany is used here for the back, top, and sides of the body, and the neck measures 25 inches in scale. It is also made of Mahogany with the square design characteristic of bluegrass music, and it has a Rosewood fingerboard. Despite its lightweight construction, it weighs just over 10 pounds.

There is also a round-necked version of the guitar for those who prefer to play Blues. The sound is helped along its way by an amplifying cone spider bridge. Each cone is made from handspun aluminium.

There are six die-cast Grover machine heads on the headstock. For lap steel playing, there is a bone nut that is set tall to deliver the higher action that is required.

The guitar generates quite a lot of volume, which is quite surprising. Part of this is due to a design feature we have left until last to describe.

On the front of the guitar Gretsch has included some classic ‘f’ holes. This should not be a surprise to those who are familiar with Gretsch guitars. Their iconic instruments, the Country Gent and the Tennessean, both had “f” holes. So did many of their other models. This is a classic Gretsch design that works well here.

Gretsch instruments are famous for their quality. They’re well made and sound great when combined with wood. Mahogany works well with the spider resonator, which provides a lot of sustain. Although it has a heavy sound on the top end, that is not unusual for the genre it was designed for.

At its price point, it is a good value and a nice guitar.

PROS:

  • Excellent design and build quality.
  • Gretsch guitars are reasonably priced

CONS:

  • Some may find the sound too bright.

Wrap Up

Compared to classical guitars, acoustic guitars, and even electric guitars, resonators may seem complicated, with many variations, styles, and sounds. However, after gaining a solid understanding of the basics, things become easier to understand.

We hope this chart and guide can inspire you, whether you are an experienced square neck spider player or a beginner round neck biscuit enthusiast. Once you’ve compiled a shortlist, make sure to read reviews, watch videos, and – if possible – try out your chosen models before deciding on something that should last you for years and years.

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